FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A.J. Francis has always been a character.
His robust sense of humor and charisma makes him the center of attention in any room.
He can rhyme to any beat without writing a word down, posting freestyle raps on his social media accounts every Friday for a full year.
Tuesday, this former NFL defensive tackle who spent three seasons with the Miami Dolphins signed a three-year contract to join World Wrestling Entertainment, continuing his journey to become a professional wrestler in the sport’s premiere league.
A couple months ago, Francis had a crowd of roughly 600 gasping at the sight of his wrestling opponent Alex Ocean jumping off the top of a 22-foot ladder into Francis’ chest to end a Coastal Championship Wresting TLC (tables, ladders and chairs) match.
The finishing move was a showstopping moment Francis had worked on perfecting for months, one that captivated the Coral Springs crowd.
Francis, who has spent a year on the amateur circuit learning the craft, must work his way up the WWE by impressing his instructors at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando. When and if that happens, we could see his character, Franc, in the ring during a nationally televised RAW or NXT match.
But Francis, who will be training alongside 65 to 70 others wrestlers, is convinced his life experiences, charisma and NFL career provide him the tools he needs to fulfill what he’s certain is his destiny. Even as a child, he loved to watch pro wrestling, especially the promotional snippets of wrestlers taunting their upcoming opponents.
“My parents had video of me cutting promos against Hulk Hogan since I was 18 months old. I’ve watched wrestling for nearly 30 years,” said Francis, who turns 30 in May. “The reason I moved to Orlando when I was in the NFL is because I knew when my career ended this is what I wanted to do.”
Francis, who drove an Uber for extra income and entertainment during his tenure with the Dolphins, is far from the first former football player to transition to wrestling.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson played college football for the University of Miami, winning a national championship on the 1991 Hurricanes football team. But he only spent two months in the Canadian Football League.
Ron Simmons played for the Cleveland Browns. And although his NFL career didn’t flourish, his wrestling career did. Simmons broke many racial barriers by became the first recognized African American WCW World Heavyweight Champion and the second African American wrestler to win a World Heavyweight title.
Bill Goldberg, one of the more popular wrestlers from this generation, played in the NFL for the Rams, Falcons and Panthers.
Former Florida Gator defensive lineman Thaddeus Bullard, who is known in wrestling world as Titus O’Neil, is a 10-year veteran of the WWE.
“I’ve seen countless guys who played football at a high level come in here and tryout, and after two days they’re done,” Bullard said. “A.J. will learn there’s a different kind of shape he has to be in to be successful here. He’s operated in small spaces because of the position he played so that won’t be unique to him, but he’s going to have to learn about camera angles.”
Bullard’s best advice to Francis is “drop your ego at the door.”
Francis, an undrafted defensive tackle from the University of Maryland who bounced on and off practice squads for a few seasons, was a member of the Dolphins, Patriots, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Giants and Redskins. He played a total of 193 snaps in nine NFL games.
In his final NFL game, he contributed a career-high six tackles for the Giants in the 2017 season finale.
Four months later he was surprisingly cut as the Redskins prepared for the NFL draft.
The way Francis sees it, the politics of the NFL had gotten him again. Francis typically excelled in training camps and during the preseason, but rarely got the opportunity to enter a team’s playing rotation during the regular season.
“I was never anybody’s guy. I was always the guy they signed off the street. I was never the high-profile free agent, or the player someone drafted,” Francis said. “Nobody would ever stand on a table for me. The only person that ever stood on the table for me was me.”
Francis had two tryouts for teams during the 2018 season, but instead of fighting to extend his career he decided to hang it up and begin training as a wrestler with Team 3D Academy in Kissimmee, which is owned by WWE Hall of Famers Bubba Ray and D-Von Dudley.
“I completely understand why he gave up on the NFL,” said former Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes, who played with Francis in Miami and Tampa Bay. “A.J. always balled. But always got overlooked. I was undrafted, too, and was in the same boat for a while until I established himself. I wanted to quit at times too.”
According to Grimes, the passion Francis had for wrestling allowed the career shift to make sense for everyone who knew him.
“He loved wrestling more than he loved football. He’s big and athletic for his size, but most importantly he has the personality for it,” Grimes added. “Wrestlers are actors. They have big personalities, and that’s A.J.”
Francis trained for a year and participated in every amateur match he could to catch the WWE’s attention. He held the Sauce Castle Wrestling title belt for 210 days before losing the belt he affectionately called “bae” late last year.
Now his focus is on learning how to run ropes, properly execute a body slam and effectively take a hit well enough to become a belt holder for one of WWE’s various enterprises.
“It was never meant to be, and I can look back at it now and say that wasn’t my destiny,” Francis said referring to his NFL career. “I was put on earth to be a professional wrestler. All of the things I’m good at — controlling a crowd, audience interaction, the fact that I can take a beating — I can use all of them in wrestling.”